It took the British government five weeks to take note of the mass demonstrations in Iraq. These started last week of 2012 and are comparable in size, energy, and peaceful nature to the protests that toppled other Arab regimes, albeit expanding mainly in the capitals of the four central Iraqi provinces.
Minister for Middle East, Alistair Burt, finally commented on 28 January 2013, about clashes between protesters and the Iraqi army. At least the Minister did separate the death of the unarmed protesters from the subsequent attack hours later on an army unit few miles away from the protest site. The events centre on Fallujah, west of Baghdad, one of the main cities where mass protest is mounting by the day.
The first shooting, resulted in 5 death and about 40 injured is clearly video-recorded. The second ended with 2 soldiers killed and 3 abducted. In the chaos of claims by an ever changing official narrative and statements by a committee of investigators these two incidents are often deliberately handled together with potential for escalations. Now the withdrawal of army and federal police units from Fallujah, and the assigning of security to local police announced by the Defence Ministry spokesman immediately after the shooting on Friday 25 January may well not be implemented as a result of the chaotic political and security breakdown in the country maintain the dominant the total mistrust amongst all the players taking part in the “ political process” on one hand and among them and the people on the other.
The Iraqi city of Falluja, which 9 years ago became a symbol of heroic Iraqi resistance against the brutalities of the US/UK occupation, is now at the forefront of another battle.
Young Omar Ali Al Ani, a father of a three-year-old girl, was one of the five people killed on Friday 25th January and his picture was the first placed on the web sites. The names of the victims were listed on the banners during the mass funerals on Saturday 26th.
The victims were on their way to join the vigil in Sahet al Karama “ Dignity square “ and to take part in a communal Friday prayer carried on in many Iraqi cities since 25th Dec 2012. The communal prayer of both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is a practice Iraqis often resort to at times of crisis and colonial threats, most famously during the 1920 revolution against British occupation, practiced widely in the first year of the US/UK occupation in 2003, and once more It has been embraced recently in cities in the provinces of Baghdad Nineveh, Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk and Anbar to assert the unity of Iraqis in defiance of the party-sectarian policy of Nouri Al Maliki’s regime.
The demonstrations began with a few hundred people in both Anbar, west of Iraq, and Nineveh in the North, arising in anger at the news of rape of women detainees at the hands of the Iraqi security forces under Maliki’s command as Commander in Chief. Maliki’s rivals and partners in government and in the parliamentary ‘political process’ established by the US occupation and despised by the public, tried to use this issue to avoid being steadily marginalised by him through imprisonment of their body guards accused with charges of terrorism, and with an eye on municipal elections in a few months time. Within few days the protests morphed into a genuine mass movement and a vigil, not unlike what happened in the Arab spring. In fact the Anbar demonstrators adopted a resolution to disallow any minister or Member of the parliament from mounting the podium.
The demand for the release of women detainees gained a wide support, igniting a gradual escalation. Some of the women have been tortured, raped or threatened with rape according to reports by the committee of human rights in the parliament . The regime’s various spokesmen gave out contradictory responses: from denying the existence of women detainees arrested as hostages to force the surrender of their male relatives, admitting that some “terrorist” women were arrested, promising swift release, denying rape, to finally setting up a panel of religious personalities and officials to investigate. Other demands focused on release of prisoners and the repeal of section 4 in the Terrorism Act which allows the arrest of anyone without a warrant and without submitting him/ her to courts: The Iraqi version of Guantanamo. In different provinces lists of a dozen demands were approved by mass acclamation in the protest squires, with very similar wordings. Coordination grew within and between the provinces but no central body emerged.
Most observers and politicians, including people till recently allies to Maliki, could only regard these demands rather basic in essence, calling for government reforms, respect human rights, implement justice according to international laws and end the endemic sectarianism and corruption. There have been several Iraqi parliamentarian and international reports on such human rights abuses calling for an end to the systematic torture practised in various detention facilities. Commonly reported methods of torture are “suspension by the limbs for long periods, beatings with cables and hosepipes, electric shocks, breaking of limbs, partial asphyxiation with plastic bags, and rape or threats of rape. Torture was used to extract information from detainees and “confessions” that could be used as evidence against them in courts.”
Another demand is to abolish or suspend the Justice and Accountability Law which have been used to target political dissidents labelling them Ba’athist, i.e. belonging to the Saddam Hussein regime before the occupation in 2003. Protesters say this law is used for sectarian purposes since many high levels Baathist who have switched alliance to the ruling Shii political groups are in prominent positions now while even low-level state employees whose jobs under that regime depended on some form of affiliation to the ruling party, are targeted and deprived of liberty or work or pension, mainly because they do not support Maliki.
Al Maliki’s initial response to the demands was no less than late Qadafi’s response. He described the demonstrators as “bubbles” whose demands are “stinking sectarian”, threatening them that they have to “end their protests or they would witness their own end”.
When Adnan Pachachi , former foreign minister and a member of Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) which was installed by US occupation, was asked by Sky News Arabia ( 10 January, 2013) about the possibility of erupting violence at demonstrations, he said : “if that’s happen, the source of it will be the government itself, because it is the party that has the capacity”.
Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi novelist, artist and activist. Her recent books are “Dreaming of Baghdad” and “City of Widows: An Iraqi woman’s account of war and resistance” and co authored “ The Torturer in the Mirror” with Ramsey Clark and Thomas Ehrlich Reifer. Haifa is co-founder of Tadhamun: Iraqi Women Solidarity, founding member of the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (IACIS) and advisor for UNDP on “Towards the Rise of women in the Arab world”. Currently she is a consultant at ESCWA.